By liberalism, I don’t mean the nanny-statism that today passes for liberalism, with its identity group politics, its ravenous appetite for state spending in the name of appearing to care and its love of top-down control.
I mean true liberalism, which values freedom, the individual and the voluntary community.
It was British thinkers, above all, who invented liberalism, and it was 19th-century liberalism that defined modern British society, politics, and national identity. That liberalism stood up for free trade and religious toleration at home, and a vigorous defence of British interests abroad. It opposed vested interests in the name of opportunity. It believed in charity, self-improvement and co-operation in the name of personal responsibility. It was not individualist, but it believed in the individual, and in the value of individual aspirations. It was realistic, but not coldly so.
There is a lot of that liberalism left in British minds. But as the debates showed, there’s less than there used to be. Indeed, the whole idea of party leader debates is an affront to British liberalism. Britain, after all, has a place for debates: the House of Commons, the natural focal point for liberal loyalties.
Debates between party leaders outside the Commons are an import from American politics, and therefore fundamentally undesirable in Britain. Worse than the debates, though, is what happened in them.
In both 2010 and 2015, the winner of the debates was the leader who was most successfully able to pretend that politics is about the state doing whatever it wants, unconstrained by reality. In 2010, that was Nick Clegg. In 2015, it was Nicola Sturgeon. That isn’t liberalism. It’s the fantasy flavour of the month.
The response from the podiums to Nigel Farage’s point that the NHS cannot afford to treat the world’s Aids victims was equally telling. He was, of course, being deliberately provocative. Yet it’s nonetheless true that Britain cannot be the world’s hospital, be it for Aids or any other disease. It’s the National Health Service, not the World Health Service.
But the other party leaders were so paralysed by their desire to appear to be caring superintendents of the welfare state that they couldn’t admit even this obvious truth. All they could do was sputter.
In the minds of the party leaders, the path to popularity is to give the answer that involves sounding caring by spending other people’s money.
In this case, the politicians got it wrong: polling found that a majority of people agreed with Farage. And when you ask questions about the state’s role in changing people’s lifestyles in Britain, you frequently get a solid, liberal answer: take your hands off my pint.
Christopher Snowdon at the Institute of Economic Affairs has done superb work on this. Earlier this year, he reported that 71 per cent of the public believes that “individuals should be responsible for their own lifestyle choices and the government should not interfere”.
But once you move from generalities to particulars, the numbers shift. Snowdon concluded there’s “a sizeable minority of people who oppose government interference in the abstract, but support it in specific instances”.
So when it comes time to vote on plain packaging for cigarettes, MPs stage a sheep-like rush away from individual responsibility.
The characteristic British attitude today is to be unhappily of two minds: the historically liberal side is grumpy about the European Union’s bureaucracy, but the statist side is reluctant to pull the ejector seat and escape from the burning plane.
The schizophrenia extends to foreign policy. In January, Chatham House published a survey by YouGov on British attitudes towards its international role.
Over 60 per cent of opinion formers and the public believed that “the UK should aspire to be a ‘great power’ rather than accept that it is in decline”.
Gladstone would applaud. But when you turn from aspirations to reality – in the form of the shrinking defence budget, the state of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the opinion of allies – the situation is bleak.
As The Economist recently summarised it, Britain has “depleted and squandered its assets”. British liberalism believed in Britain’s greatness, but to the nanny state, it’s a waste of money.
The British public often gives the liberal answer in theory, but frequently takes the easy way out in practice. This election won’t settle that, because there’s no liberal party in Britain to vote for.
But it does illustrate that the basic clash in British politics – really, in the minds of the nation – isn’t between the parties. It’s between the liberalism that made Britain, and the statism that seeks to remake it.
• Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American Relations, based at The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation in Washington.